The Firing (Up) of Former Loaned Executive Gena Hyatt

Gena Hyatt, Development and Foundation Lead at United Ability, first got her start in the nonprofit world as a Loaned Executive for United Way of Central Alabama.

When Gena Hyatt was first told by Bill Smith III, then President of Royal Cup Coffee, that he wanted her to go work for United Way of Central Alabama (UWCA) as a Loaned Executive (LE) for 13 weeks, she thought it might be a subtle, protracted way of firing her.

“Thirteen weeks? I’ve worked really hard to get where I am. I’ve got a new boss at this point,” Hyatt recalled thinking. “Are they trying to get rid of me? What does this mean?”

Hyatt, who at that time in 2015 had recently been promoted to an executive assistant position, thought she would probably be at that company until retirement and didn’t want to contemplate change – by choice or otherwise.

But after beginning her LE training at United Way, she had an awakening of sorts. On the third day, she and the 44 other Loaned Executives, who were all there to help raise money for the annual campaign, heard from UWCA President and CEO Drew Langloh, who said, “When we went to your companies, we asked for the best and told them that we’d send them back better.”

“When I heard that, I was like, ‘Okay, I believe you,’” Hyatt said. “And I had to believe him at that point, because I had to learn a new job.”

Hyatt, who now serves as Development and Foundation Lead at United Ability, said the LE experience changed her life.

Early in her Loaned Executive journey, she realized that she needed to develop her story — the narrative she would use to tell businesses why it is important to donate to United Way. While she was a longtime donor to UWCA herself, that year’s goal of raising $38.7 million seemed unimaginable.

“That’s Monopoly money,” Hyatt recalled thinking. And she wondered how her relatively small contribution could actually have an impact in the community or on the campaign goal. Then she went on a visit to the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama. And there she learned that $5 is enough to provide food for a child and their siblings for an entire weekend.

“Immediately, standing on that concrete floor, I knew that was part of my story,” Hyatt said, “and that’s how I connected it because I have two children.”

To help with her story, Hyatt also put together a visual aid — a clear plastic backpack containing a variety of ready-to-eat or easy-to-prepare foods, such as boxed mac-and-cheese and canned ravioli, purchased for less than $5.

Later, she added free children’s books from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and from Better Basics, a UWCA partner agency, to further show how donations work to support children.

With that book bag, Hyatt spread her UWCA story widely throughout Birmingham’s corporate community, including EBSCO Industries. In what Hyatt expected to be a one-time meeting, she stood before 25 to 30 EBSCO representatives and showed her backpack, explaining the various ways UWCA supports children. When it was over, she thanked everyone in the room.

“Afterward, Mr. Stephens [who was EBSCO Board Chair] stood up by himself, in the sea of people, and said, ‘I don’t know what anybody in here had planned for your [employee group] meetings,’” Hyatt recalled, “’but I want her at every single one of them.’”

Hyatt said her experience as an LE completely changed what she wanted to do with her career. Late in that year’s campaign – and near the end of her 13-week stint — she walked into the office of former UWCA Senior Vice President of Resource Development Ellyn Grady. She was sobbing.

“I said, ‘I don’t know what to do with this emotion.’ I felt like it was a build-up of all these weeks and these stories. I wasn’t sad about it. I was on fire, and I knew that feeling wasn’t going to go away, and I was going to have to go back to the real world.”

While Grady did reassure her that it was a normal feeling, Hyatt said that after returning to her job as an executive assistant, it never felt the same. One day, while making copies of financial records and placing them in three-ring binders, Hyatt said the tears started pouring and wouldn’t stop.

“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Hyatt said. “’It’s not beneath me, but it’s not for me anymore.’”

Hyatt told Bill Smith III that while she spent 13 weeks raising money to help people she’ll never know, many employees right there inside Royal Cup needed help in various ways but couldn’t access it. In response, Smith promoted her to Employee Relations Manager and put her in charge of a new employee aid program.

Hyatt flourished in that role, creating first a GED program for employees who had withdrawn before completing high school, then an employee emergency fund as well as a formal process for employees to request assistance. Hyatt even raised money internally to fund the programs.

“That was incredibly fulfilling, to be able to walk that journey, stand up and advocate for myself and other people, get what I wanted as far as that role and be able to give back,” she said.

The assistance programs, unfortunately, began to fall apart with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. For two more years, Hyatt stayed on, working with employees, administering coronavirus tests, working hard on a new HR newsletter, but eventually started seeking a position that would allow her to focus on the advocacy work.

In 2022, Hyatt was hired into her first nonprofit job at Workshops Empowerment, another United Way partner agency with the mission to enrich the lives of individuals with disabilities and other barriers to employment by helping to ensure they achieve their vocational potential.

Now in 2024, she is continuing her work in service to people with disabilities at partner agency United Ability – maintaining that strong connection to United Way, where the fire inside her was first ignited.